More Elites Are Using CBD to Help With Sleep. Should You? | Turn 420
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More Elites Are Using CBD to Help With Sleep. Should You?



Just a few years ago, it was hard to find elite runners who were open about using cannabidiol, better known as CBD. That was true even though CBD was exempted from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s ban on in-competition cannabinoids in 2018. Elites I asked at the time cited concern about CBD’s lack of FDA regulation, uneasiness about the stoner vibe that was then more associated with all cannabis products, and, perhaps most importantly, skepticism about whether CBD had any performance-boosting benefits.

That’s no longer the case. Runners such as 2:09 marathoner Noah Droddy and European 10K champion Eilish McColgan say that CBD helps them recover from hard training. Perhaps the biggest elite claim about CBD, made by Olympians Molly Seidel and Emily Infeld and others, is that it improves their sleep.

The theory there is that better sleep leads to better recovery, which leads to better training, which leads to better racing. (Plus, has any runner ever said, “I wish I didn’t sleep as well”?)

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Elites are often in the vanguard of new best practices. Is CBD for sleep one such practice? Will your running improve if you make CBD part of your pre-bed routine? Here’s what the evidence and experts have to say on the topic.

CBD and Sleep Facts First

Let’s start by looking at published clinical research on CBD and sleep.

It’s important to understand that most research in the area is for specific conditions, such as insomnia and apnea, rather than whether CBD will help you feel better on tomorrow’s tempo run. Even for specific needs, the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly in CBD’s favor.

For example, a study from 2019 found that two-thirds of participants with anxiety or poor sleep reported better sleep in their first month of taking CBD, but more varying results after that. A 2021 research overview included the caveat-laden conclusion, “the results indicate a potential therapeutic role for cannabinoids in the management of some sleep disorders.” (Emphasis added.)

A review of research on CBD and athletic recovery published last year captured the still-speculative status of the topic in saying, “CBD consumption could stimulate the endocannabinoid system modulating sleep disorders and the sleep-wake cycle. Promising, but no specific evidence suggests using cannabinoids like CBD to reduce sleep disorders in athletes.” The endocannabinoid system is sometimes described as your body’s master regulator. When it’s functioning well, then, theoretically, many of your body’s processes should operate more optimally.

Absence of Evidence Isn’t Evidence of Absence

This lack of a clear cause and effect isn’t necessarily a deal breaker for CBD and runners’ sleep.

Again, most research involves people who report specific sleep disorders or conditions, such as anxiety, that can harm sleep. That’s usually the nature of clinical studies. There’s a much greater public health interest in helping people with, say, post-traumatic stress disorder to sleep better than there is improving the sleep of healthy marathoners.

Of course, there are many things that runners do to improve performance that haven’t been verified by double-blind clinical research, but that many of us accept as effective, such as post-run stretching and hill sprints.

Nor should individual claims of effectiveness be dismissed as simply stemming from the placebo effect. Practitioners throughout medicine acknowledge and lean on the placebo effect to help their patients. According to Scott Shannon, M.D., an author of the 2019 study and founder of the Wholeness Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, the placebo effect is present in 40 to 60 percent of positive results in psychotropic medicine trials. “People expect improvement, and thus it appears,” he says. “It’s very useful to work with this.”

As with accepting practices not backed by clinical research, this phenomenon should also be familiar to runners. It’s not uncommon for a long-term injury to feel better after one visit with a physical therapist, or for someone to suddenly race faster just after switching coaches. In both cases, the improvement is almost certainly because of the belief that the new way of doing things is for the better—and the body goes along with the mind on the matter.

How Might CBD Improve Sleep?

Despite the ambiguous research, and not counting the placebo effect, there’s at least a theoretical explanation for how CBD can improve sleep.

“What is known so far is that CBD stimulates the endocannabinoid system, which modulates the sleep-wake cycle,” says Daniel Rojas-Valverde, Ph.D., of the National University of Costa Rica and author of the review on CBD and athletic recovery cited above. “CBD stimulates certain neuroreceptors that are responsible for regulating neural activity. The consumption of CBD intervenes in processes related to mood regulation and relaxation. In this way, its consumption can improve the quantity, quality, and speed of falling asleep.”

Shannon adds, “CBD reduces anxiety, and for most people, anxiety limits sleep and creates rumination about it. Less anxiety equals less preoccupation with non-sleep—i.e., people fret less, and this may be as important as sleeping more.”

Dosage and Buying Advice When Using CBD for Sleep

If you’re interested in trying CBD to improve your sleep, follow the classic dosing guidance of “start low and slow.” Try 10 to 20 milligrams in the hour before you go to bed for a week. If you notice a benefit, great; stay at that amount. If you don’t, try an additional 10 milligrams per night for a week. Follow this pattern until you hit upon the dosage that seems to work for you. If you get to 50 milligrams and still don’t notice an effect, you might be a non-responder.

If you think CBD is helping you sleep better, but you often wake feeling groggy rather than refreshed, cut back by 5 to 10 milligrams per night.

There are many forms in which you can take CBD—tincture, capsule, drink, even patches. Choose the one you’re most likely to use regularly. Buy only from brands that do third-party testing of their products and that make those test results easy to find. Those test results should show that the products contain the amount of CBD they claim to include. The products linked below meet that standard.

Best CBD Products to Support Sleep
Rest for the wicked
Hoo Raa Rest for the wicked
DEEPS Sleep Patch
Dream Powder
Sleep Formula CBD SoftGels
Floyd’s of Leadville Sleep Formula CBD SoftGels

Scott is a veteran running, fitness, and health journalist who has held senior editorial positions at Runner’s World and Running Times. Much of his writing translates sport science research and elite best practices into practical guidance for everyday athletes. He is the author or coauthor of several running books, including Running Is My Therapy, Advanced Marathoning, and Meb for Mortals. Scott has also written about running for Slate, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and other members of the sedentary media. His lifetime running odometer is past 110,000 miles, but he’s as much in love as ever. 

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